Sexual Offences (Amendment) Bill

Part of the debate – in the House of Lords at 5:14 pm on 11th April 2000.

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Photo of Earl Ferrers Earl Ferrers Conservative 5:14 pm, 11th April 2000

My Lords, one of the charms of your Lordships' House is that by the curious operation of the speakers' list one often finds oneself following a speaker from whom one holds diametrically opposed views. The noble Baroness, Lady Gould of Potternewton, found that today when following my noble friend Lord Waddington; and I find that when following the noble Lord, Lord Alli. Nevertheless, views are listened to usually with courtesy and the recognition that even if one does not agree with the argument being put forward it is at least a view which can be reasonably held and should be properly heard. That is one of the great advantages which noble Lords have--I would say over almost any other chamber.

I agree with the noble Lord, Lord Alli, that one must be true to one's self. The noble Lord is true to himself; and I like to hope that I am true to myself, too. However, I find it fairly disagreeable and discouraging that we are yet again discussing the subject of sex. In the past 18 months we have done so on a number of occasions. One might even be forgiven for thinking that the Government have sex on the brain. But on this occasion it is because the Government are insisting on trying to alter the law in a way to which most people object and for which the Government have no mandate.

Everyone knows that sex is a delicate subject, and that people's views as to what is or is not acceptable, and legally acceptable, vary considerably. Perhaps it is because of that that people have a fear that there is a common tendency to push the barriers of freedom, acceptability or licence (call it what one will) just that bit further down the road. Perhaps it is easier not to defend what one believes to be right for fear of inviting ridicule or being cast as old fashioned. Perhaps it is because the lobby which may be opposed to one's views is so powerful that it is easy to believe, often erroneously, that the volume of the noise reflects the breadth of support for the argument--like the politician who had written in the margins of his speech, "Weak point. Shout."

Yet no one should be deterred from standing up for what he or she believes is right. Whenever Bills come before your Lordships for which I do not feel a great deal of sympathy--as is the case with this Bill--I take comfort from the words of a previous Archbishop of Canterbury, Archbishop Fisher, who said,

"There is no unreasonable argument which cannot be proved reasonable by reason".

In other words, take a rotten argument, dress it up with fine words and it sounds quite acceptable.

Surely one of the most important things for Parliament to do in this day and age when all previously accepted attitudes are being turned upside down is to protect young people. People under 18 are still young, and often uncertain as to the values of life. To say, as the Bill permits, that two people who have reached the age of 16, who are still at school and possibly even in the choir together, should be allowed to bugger each other whenever and wherever they like--a matter about which not even the headmaster can do anything and, as my noble friend Lady Blatch said, if he does he is likely to run foul of the Human Rights Act--seems to be totally wrong.

So much has been said about the subject that I shall desist from wearying your Lordships with all the reasons why I believe the Bill to be wrong, other than to encapsulate my views by saying that I believe that heterosexuality is the norm. That is why we are made how we are. Most people would hope that their children would follow that natural path. Homosexuality, for whatever its reasons, is an aberration from the norm; and while some people may be born that way others can be drawn into it. Children need protection.

I now have the pleasure of turning to the noble and learned Lord the Attorney-General. We have not seen so much of the noble and learned Lord lately since he left the Home Office. It is a pity that when he comes to the House he is always leading some disagreeable Bill. I feel sorry for him because he has been given the task of taking the Bill through your Lordships' House. He took the last one through and I dare say that his colleagues told him that he could take this one through, too.

The noble and learned Lord is an honourable man of the highest integrity, even if in the recesses of his mind he periodically harbours some wayward ideas. However, I find it hard to believe that, having introduced the Bill with such conviction, he considers it right to subject young people between the ages of 16 and 18 to the legal approbation of these homosexual experiences. After 18, they can do what they like. Is it really too long to wait for a further two years before being able to be exposed legally to those experiences? That time can be spent in formulating their judgments.

I find it hard to believe that the noble and learned Lord really believes that it is right for men, by law, to be able to bugger girls of 16--something which they were not allowed to do previously. That is the kind of thing which the Bill would allow and I do not believe that it is right. A few years ago, it would have made one's hair stand on end! I suggest that it ought to make one's hair stand on end now, if we are to be a country with any moral code.

Is it right that in Clause 4 it should not be an offence for a person to have sexual activities with another person if before the passing of the Bill that person was already in a sexual relationship with the other person and when he was in a position of trust? In other words, because something appalling is going on when the Bill becomes law, that appalling thing will be allowed to continue. That is what the Bill does and I find it unbelievable.

Perhaps the noble and learned Lord does not really believe in all this, but it is government policy. Periodically, government policy requires the wheeling in of the heavy brass, which is what has happened today. Of course, the Government will find no more able a person than the noble and learned Lord, who is capable of applying himself to any argument and of advocating either side of a case with equal conviction and abandon, as he once admitted.

I wish that he had put his head further down in the scrum behind the scenes and had pushed more purposefully for rectitude and for young people to be surrounded by the good facts of life. It seems that nowadays everything has to be hurled at young people on the basis of breadth of knowledge. They are told, "We have told you everything. It is now up to you. You choose". But the duty of parents and teachers is to "mould" the young. That is what is meant by "bringing up".

There was a parson at home who possessed many virtues, but of which speaking in the pulpit was not one. I remember some 35 years ago he made a very profound observation. He said, "What will destroy this world will not be the atom bomb or the hydrogen bomb, but the inability to discern between right and wrong". Those words ring true today.

Wherein lies the great desire of the Government to lower the age of consent to 16? They know that almost every poll shows that the majority of people do not want it. The Government have no mandate for it. It was not in their manifesto and, I dare say, had it been they would not have had such a large majority in Parliament. Why do they want to make this change?

Your Lordships will remember that during debates on the House of Lords Bill the Government spokesmen--the noble and learned Lord was at the head of the pack--said that the abolition of hereditary Peers was in the manifesto, that the Government had been elected to do that, and therefore hereditary Peers should not complain that the Government had introduced that measure. That was an argument which I found a little difficult to swallow, especially when the Government decided to keep 100 hereditary Peers, which was not in their manifesto. After that, we did not hear too much about what was in it.

However, the lowering of the age of consent was not in the Labour Party's manifesto. The Government can claim no mandate for this. They cannot begin to say that they are carrying out the will of the people. Why, therefore, do they want to do it?

On the previous occasion, I reminded your Lordships that when in 1994 we debated the lowering of the age of consent from 21 to 18, I had the privilege of being an ornament in the Home Office. I was therefore the hapless character who had to deal with the amendment. My officials stressed firmly that it would be quite wrong for me, as a member of the Government, to give my views as to the virtues of the amendment. I was told that it was, as are all matters relating to sex, a matter of conscience for the individual Members of Parliament and that the Government must remain neutral. Needless to say, I took the advice of my officials--and I used to take their advice when it was right.

When I asked the noble and learned Lord, who was in then in the Home Office, whether the advice of his officials was the same as it was when I was a Minister, he said that he had not asked them. That was, if I may say so, a crafty lawyer's answer. It did not mean to say that they had not given it. My modest experience is that officials are only too happy to give advice, even if they have not been asked for it. Indeed, today the noble and learned Lord, Lord Williams of Mostyn, said that he would give us advice even if we did not want to hear it.

I wonder why only a few years ago the official view of the Home Office was that this was a matter of conscience for individual Members of Parliament and that the Government must not intervene, yet today the Government are saying that it is their policy to go ahead with the change without any mandate or the approval of the people. The Government are saying, "We shall dictate the age of consent. If Parliament does not like it, we shall force it through under the Parliament Act".

By what right do the Government believe that they are in such a unique position to decide such issues better than are individual Members of Parliament? How can the noble and learned Lord say that this is a free vote of Parliament when they say that they will use the Parliament Act if one House objects to it?

The noble Lord, Lord Lester of Herne Hill, said that all the members of his party would back the Government, despite getting himself into a slight intellectual tangle as a result of a question from my noble friend Lord Monson. That means that the Liberal Democrats will not have a free vote.